Delphina’s House (Alice Grove)

delphinaDelphina’s House is another of several ParserComp games that I didn’t have time to get to while the competition was actually in progress. It was widely liked by the comp judges, and came in 3rd overall and 2nd in the technical category. It’s the story of an imaginative little girl who is performing a sort of treasure hunt (mostly of the imagination) before moving out of her house for the last time. I found this premise mildly charming but not all that gripping; I was more interested in the puzzle construction, which was effective.

The core mechanic centers on shifting from one universe to another: an object that appears as tiny jinglebells in one imaginary universe might appear as a collection of marbles in another, for instance. This is strongly reminiscent of Dual Transform, but whereas Dual Transform requires you to move through and understand all its spaces, Delphina’s House uses the transformation strategy to make its game more forgiving. There are three major puzzles, each of which can be solved in any of the three universes: you can pick which variation you find easiest and solve it there.

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Eczema Angel Orifice (Porpentine)

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Eczema Angel Orifice is an anthology of Porpentine’s work from the last several years, assembled into an application with a soundtrack by Brenda Neotenomie and authorial notes for each piece.

Because Porpentine is prolific, there is a lot in the collection, including a number of works I’ve reviewed individually on this blog: howling dogs, Their Angelical Understanding, Ruiness, Begscape, ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III, Contrition, With Those We Love Alive.

There are a number of other pieces, too, some of which I hadn’t reviewed; a few I hadn’t even played before this came along, like the brief and curiously consoling mother from Twiny Jam, in which your insect-related parent cares for you with food and moths. Even if you follow Porpentine’s work, odds are good that at least a couple of her things have slipped past you and that you’ll have a surprise or two waiting in the compilation.

It’s also just a very pleasant way to experience these pieces. There’s an interactive guide at the beginning, to help you identify works that you might particularly like, or that might suit your mood. If you haven’t played ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III yet — and you should — this package will also make it easier for you. (I won’t explain why, as that would involve spoilers; just trust me on this.)

As for the design notes, they are like the rest of Porpentine’s writing, compact and thought-provoking.

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I liked that the notes were offered as separate reading and that Porpentine hadn’t done any sort of overlay or footnote presentation within the main texts: these are often so carefully crafted that notes would come as an intrusion. Reading the commentary before or after a work felt like the natural way of doing things.

A couple of things aren’t in the collection: there’s no Love is Zero, no Cry$tal Warrior Ke$ha (perhaps because that relies on external music resources?). But that’s often the way with anthologies.

The full package is available for $5 on itch.io.

Her Story, Further Reflections

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I wrote a review already about Her Story, and that is what you should read if you are trying to decide whether to play it.

But lately I’ve run into a strand of criticism of the game to the effect that the central mystery is very trope-driven and highly implausible. (Here are several: Claire Hosking, Jed Pressgrove, Soledad Honrado.)

I read these critiques, I see what they’re getting at, and I think: yeah, but I liked it anyway. Why? Fundamentally I believe stories need to contain some measure of human truth to be worthwhile. Was I just distracted here by how much fun the mechanic was, or did I see a truth in it?

So I want to talk a bit about the actual story that is uncovered here, and about why I personally responded positively to it. This will be very very full of spoilers and also really heavy on the personal reflections, so if you are not interested in those things, bail now.

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Pry (Tender Claws)

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PRY is an iOS story that combines video segments and text to explore the inner and outer worlds of a veteran who is still struggling to process his experiences in the war, who is suffering from vision impairment thanks to wounds sustained there, and who is now trying to hold down a job in demolitions.

The interaction consists entirely of swipes and touches of the text: not, as in a hypertext environment, selecting particular words and choices, but instead pinching portions of the screen together, pulling them apart, or sliding along a line of text. The hand is in contact with the screen almost all the time, and movement is almost always meaningful; operating PRY feels tactile and analog, like playing an instrument.

The conceit is that there are several layers of reality happening at a time. Though this is handled in different ways in different chapters, the general rule is that if we spread the page open, we’re opening the protagonist’s eyes, looking outwards, and seeing objective reality. Sometimes that objective reality takes the form of video about what is happening around us; sometimes it’s different text. Or, again, if we pinch the page closed on itself, we’re retreating into the subconscious, where flickering surreal images and rapidly cycling single words of text indicate our fears, our memories, our connections with the present. The subconscious recollection of childhood, or of an incident in war, might underlie our uncomfortable reaction to what is happening on the job site.

pry_brailleThemes of sight and the ability to see are crucial. In one chapter, we can read a braille passage about Jacob and Esau by swiping over the braille text; this functions as an audio scrub, moving the voiceover forwards and backwards. One can read tentatively, a single word at a time, or fast, fast enough to turn the words into semi-gibberish. This appealed to me on several levels: because it recapitulated the physical experience of the protagonist, and that is a level of involvement that iOS games are very rarely able to offer; because it put me in a position of temporary and uncomfortable illiteracy (I can’t read braille and the string of dots meant nothing to me on their own) that suggested helplessness; because I felt relieved when I was able to get the translation after all, via unconventional means.

(Ironically, I suspect that this would be a very difficult game to make accessible to visually impaired players, but I’m not sure.)

Elsewhere, PRY offers a text that opens and opens and opens. Initially there are just a few lines of text on the screen. Pinch them apart, and new sentences appear between old ones, expanding the narrative outward. Sometimes, in a virtuoso trick, the new sentences change the meaning of the sentences that come afterwards: a pronoun now refers to someone different, a description to something else. But the text has to work in both its closed and its open formats. There’s a lot of content here, too — you can keep expanding, keep reading more and more into the screen, for longer than seems plausible. And when there’s no more detail text to be read, sometimes peeking between the lines will instead reveal the subconscious response, flickering words that convey the protagonist’s ambivalence or fear. The lines that have been fully and wholly explored fade gently to a darker grey, guiding the reader to where new material remains to be seen.

It is, in short, an ergodic work that requires a reasonable amount of effort from the player, but the smoothness of the design means that that effort is low in friction and typically enjoyable. There are no choices available that will change what happens in the story, or even how the protagonist feels about them; our decisions are entirely about how deep we will go into the protagonist’s understanding, and what aspect of his experience we want to look at when.

PRY was released without all of its chapters, but even as it stands it is appealing and evocative, and very unlike most other interactive story interfaces I’ve encountered.

(Disclaimer: PRY came to my attention during IGF judging, but I played a copy that I purchased.)

IF-related ideas in computational creativity: ICCC 2015

ICCC is a conference dedicated to computational creativity, which includes a wide spectrum of work: programs that create artwork and images, music generators, systems that invent metaphors and jokes, story and poetry creation systems. I gave the keynote, about Versu, Blood & Laurels, and the work I’m doing in response to the feedback that we got from that process. There was a lot of fascinating content; here are a few of the highlights that had most to do with interactive fiction:

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Procjam assets

Michael Cook gave a passionate talk on the value of jams, especially jams that have been modified to make them more accessible — providing a timeframe including two weekends for people who work for a living, removing some of the constraints on what can be entered, furnishing resources to help people get started, and getting rid of the competition aspect. In particular, he’s running PROCJAM again this year, a jam for “making things that make things”; and he’s providing a set of art assets (sample shown above) for people who want some combinable art to work with. This looks like a really neat jam, and would certainly have room for IF-related work (whether that’s a generator to build IF or IF with procedural content).

He also pointed towards sortingh.at, a lightweight website designed to help would-be game-makers find the tools they need for their particular project. (It discusses IF tools including Twine and Inform, but a number of other types of game-making tool as well.)

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Peter Mawhorter spoke about choice poetics (PDF): how we classify types of choices in choice-based interactive fiction, from “obvious choice” and “dilemma (in which the two options are equally problematic)” to more esoteric types; he used a CYOA story generator called Dunyazad to produce choices that he felt ought to conform to different choice classes, as a way to interrogate the theory more deeply. This paper from FDG 2014 provides some more background on the concept of choice poetics.

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Kate Compton talked about casual creators, creative tools that are a pleasure to explore and encourage playfulness and pleasure. There’s a very nice introduction to the concept online, and she’s made a wide range of examples, including Tracery, a lightweight text generator that George Buckenham has built into an easy twitterbot tool called cheapbotsdonequick.

I used cheapbotsdonequick to make IFDB Sommelier, a bot that tweets IFDB searches that combine random parameters — I was intrigued by the ability to build randomized URLs as well as randomized content text. If you are looking for something a little more NSFW, I recommend Squinky’s AbhorrentSexBot, or perhaps Jacob Garbe’s orcish insult bot.

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While there I also learned about the What If Machine:

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The What If Machine generates speculative premises and imagined outcomes for them. Some of these are more persuasive than others, but they’re all rather cool and evocative. I kind of like this one:

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June Link Assortment

stickerphotoMy casual storygame San Tilapian Studies is running at a free exhibition of play at The Wellcome Collection in London the evening of July 3. Many other terrific things will be there too. I can’t be there myself, but I am really excited to have the game played in such a cool space.

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The next Oxford IF meetup will be Sunday, July 12. Oxford meetups tend to be cozier than the meetups in London, making them a great place to bring works in progress or concept ideas to throw around with the group.

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Competitions are opening shortly: IF Comp starts accepting intents to enter on July 1 (tomorrow!). Meanwhile, the Windhammer Gamebook Prize starts accepting submissions August 1.

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When I wrote up Feral Vector, I couldn’t find a good online source talking about the game poems Harry Giles had introduced. Now there is one! Harry wrote up a primer on the form with some examples; it also discusses Twine poetry, art in text adventure form, and a number of other interesting topics.

Somewhat related: this page of 200-word indie RPG rulesets. They’re trying perhaps a little harder (sometimes) to describe something you could practically play, but again have an intriguing focus on getting across a core gameplay concept distilled to its essence.

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